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Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)

From: Encyclopedia of Robberies, Heists, and Capers.

America's most notorious radical clique of the 1970s sprang from a failed social experiment at California's Vacaville State Prison. Designed to provide education, cultural awareness, and prerelease counseling for inmates approaching parole, the Black Cultural Association (BCA) had enlisted 100 Vacaville inmates by 1971. Collaborating with the BCA were various volunteer tutors from outside the prison, including members of a far-left Oakland collective run by white activists William Wolfe and Russell Little. The BCA's prime mover behind bars was 30-year-old career criminal Donald David DeFreeze, who taught a class on "unisight" aiming to increase awareness of the male role in black families.

Tutors Wolfe and Little staged a quiet coup in 1972, wresting control of the BCA from more moderate hands and shifting the curriculum toward Maoist politics. Star pupil DeFreeze was lost to them in a transfer to Folsom prison, but he escaped from that facility's minimum security wing on March 5, 1973, and soon rejoined his friends on the outside. By that time DeFreeze had dubbed himself "Cinque"—after the leader of a 19th-century slave rebellion—and proclaimed himself "field marshal" of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). DeFreeze apparently took his group's name from a novel by Sam Greenlee, The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1959), which portrays armed insurrection in Chicago's ghetto and uses the term symbiology in passing to describe collaboration among disparate organisms.

The collaboration DeFreeze had in mind apparently involved himself giving orders to a handful of naive white radicals. Despite its roots in the BCA and proclaimed dedication to oppressed minorities, the SLA apparently had no black members other than DeFreeze. His disciples were unanimously white and thoroughly ashamed of it, to the extent that they shunned their given "slave names" and adopted more exotic names. (Wolfe, for instance, called himself "Cujo," a word of unknown derivation which translated as "unconquerable.") Female recruits—a majority of the SLA's tiny membership—went even further in rejecting their ethnicity, affecting dark makeup and Afro wigs to make themselves "look black."

By autumn 1973 DeFreeze had recruited 11 would-be warriors for his "army," seven of whom were women. Aside from charter members Wolfe and Little there was disaffected Vietnam veteran Joseph Remiro; James Kilgore; Nancy Ling Perry; Patricia M. Soltysik; Camilla C. Hall; Wendy Yoshimura; Angela Atwood; Kathleen Ann Soliah; and a married couple, William and Emily Harris. The SLA made its first move on November 9, 1973, when Little and Remiro ambushed Oakland's black school superintendent, Marcus Foster, and killed him in a barrage of cyanide-tipped bullets. Foster's "crime," according to DeFreeze, was sponsorship of a program to photograph each member of Oakland's mostly black student body. DeFreeze regarded Foster's plan as an attempt to isolate and persecute black militants, thus prompting the elimination of a "peoples' enemy."

Police became lucky two months after Foster's murder, on January 10, 1974, when a van occupied by Little and Remiro was stopped for a traffic violation in Concord, California. The SLA gunmen came out shooting and Little was wounded, captured at the scene. Remiro briefly eluded patrolmen but he was arrested later in the day. Panicked by news of the arrests, other SLA members set fire to a nearby hideout and fled. A search of the smoldering rubble turned up revolutionary pamphlets and a cryptic note in handwriting later identified as "Cinque's." It read: "Patricia Campbell Hearst on the night of the full moon January 7."

The SLA had chosen its next target, even though the dates were off.

Patricia Hearst was the 19-year-old granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, multimillionaire newspaper magnate whose circulation war with rival Joseph Pulitzer helped spark the Spanish-American War in 1898; Patricia's father, Randolph Hearst, owned the San Francisco Examiner. On the night of February 4, 1974, a woman knocked on the door of Patty Hearst's Berkeley apartment, asking permission to use the telephone. Two gunmen barged in behind the woman, clubbing 26-year-old Stephen Weed to the floor when he tried to defend his fiancée. The raiders dragged Hearst out to a waiting car and fled in a hail of gunfire unleashed to deter pursuit. SLA involvement in the kidnapping was revealed three days later with arrival of a letter at Berkeley radio station KPFA-FM. Inside the envelope, with a credit card issued to Randolph Hearst, was a letter stating that his daughter had been taken into "protective custody." The SLA's letterhead featured a seven-headed cobra, each head corresponding to one of the group's professed goals: self-determination, cooperative production, creativity, unity, faith, purpose, and collective responsibility.

The SLA made its first ransom demand in a second letter to KPFA on February 12. As a "symbolic gesture of good faith" toward negotiation of Patricia's release, Randolph Hearst was ordered to deliver $70 worth of groceries during the next four weeks to "all people [in California] with welfare cards, Social Security pension cards, food stamp cards, disabled veteran cards, medical cards, parole or probation papers and jail or bail release slips." Enclosed with the letter was a tape recording of Patty Hearst asking her father to comply with the demands. A second tape recording, mailed separately to KPFA, featured "Cinque"-DeFreeze declaring himself "quite willing to carry out the execution of your daughter to save the life of starving men, women and children of every race."

Randolph Hearst declared his willingness to cooperate but warned the kidnappers on February 13 that "we can't meet the cost"—estimated at $400 million—of feeding all California's needy for a month at $70 per head. A third tape from the SLA, received three days later, struck a more reasonable tone. "It was never intended that you feed the whole state," Patty Hearst told her father. "Whatever you come up with is okay." DeFreeze advised Randolph Hearst, "We are quite able to assess the extent of your sincerity, and we will accept sincere efforts on your part." With that in mind, distribution of food worth some $2 million began in San Francisco and the Oakland ghetto on February 22.

By that time, Bay Area law enforcers and reporters had identified DeFreeze as "Cinque." Fingerprints from the burned-out Compton hideaway also identified 26-year-old Nancy Perry as an SLA fugitive at large. A March 9 tape recording mailed to Randolph Hearst demanded television air time for a jailhouse press conference with triggermen Little and Remiro, but Judge Sam Hall rejected the notion. Patty Hearst, on the same tape, warned her father that negotiations for her release would not begin until another $4 million in high-quality food had been distributed to the poor. A third voice—that of a woman who called herself "General Genina"—denounced the groceries passed out so far as "not fit for human consumption."

The next SLA tape, received by authorities on April 5, 1974, included a shocking announcement from Patty Hearst that she had voluntarily "chosen to stay and fight" with "Cinque's" commandos. Ten days later, SLA raiders struck a branch of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, stealing $10,960 and wounding two bystanders with wild gunfire as they fled the scene. Security cameras recorded the event, and FBI spokesmen identified one of the armed bandits as Patricia Hearst. Two other bandits appeared to point their carbines at Hearst, but bank guard Edward Shea insisted that Hearst "absolutely was a participant" in the holdup. "She wasn't scared," Shea told reporters. "She had a gun and looked ready to use it. She had plenty of command in her voice. She was full of curse words. She let it be known that she meant business."

From Washington, U.S. Attorney General William Saxbe declared of the SLA, "The entire group we're talking about is common criminals and Miss Hearst is part of it." Randolph Hearst denounced the statement as "irresponsible," but federal warrants were issued on April 15 for Patricia's arrest as a material witness. Also named in the warrants were DeFreeze, Nancy Perry, Patricia Soltysik, and Camilla Hall. San Francisco police announced that the raiding party, with getaway drivers included, had consisted of nine persons. California Attorney General Evelle Younger followed the federal lead on April 17, issuing felony arrest warrants for SLA members William Wolfe, Angela Atwood, and William and Emily Harris on perjury charges for giving false information on applications for their drivers' licenses.

The Hearst family insisted that Patricia had been brainwashed by her captors, a victim of "Stockholm syndrome," in which hostages display sympathy for their kidnappers. Patty Hearst rejected that argument in a tape mailed to San Francisco police on April 24. Calling herself "Tania," Hearst denounced the brainwashing argument as "ridiculous" and confirmed her voluntary participation in the Hibernia holdup. Her father and her fiancée were "pigs," Patricia said; if the bank heist did not prove her loyalty to the SLA, she promised that other actions soon would. A photograph depicted "Tania" wearing a beret and brandishing a carbine, posed before the SLA's seven-headed cobra flag.

Time ran out for Donald DeFreeze and half of his army in May 1974. On May 16 the Harrises were caught shoplifting in a Los Angeles thrift store, scuffling with an employee until Patty Hearst fired an automatic rifle to cover their escape in a stolen van. The next day, a telephone tip led manhunters to an SLA hideout on East 54th Street in Los Angeles. Surrounded by more than 400 police and FBI agents, six SLA members shot it out with police while TV cameras broadcast the battle nationwide. More than 6,000 shots were fired before the house was set afire, either by tear gas rounds or (according to one eyewitness report) FBI agents lobbing hand grenades. Unable or unwilling to approach the burning house, firefighters waited for it to collapse. Inside, with a small arsenal of guns, they found the charred remains of DeFreeze, William Wolfe, Nancy Perry, Patricia Soltysik, Angela Atwood, and Camilla Hall.

"Tania" Hearst remained at large though, voicing grief for her comrades in a tape mailed to Los Angeles radio station KPFK on June 7. After reiterating her revolutionary commitment, she added a more personal note. "Cujo [Wolfe] was the gentlest, most beautiful man I've ever known," she said. "We loved each other so much. Cujo means ‘unconquerable.' It was the perfect name for him. He conquered life as well as death." Hearst's relatives continued to defend her, but a federal grand jury in San Francisco took her statements seriously, indicting Patricia for armed bank robbery on June 6.

Indicting "Tania" Hearst and catching her were two very different things, however. She was still on the run with her surviving SLA cronies on April 21, 1975, when four armed bandits invaded the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. Before they fled with $15,000 from the tellers' cages, one robber fired an unprovoked shotgun blast and fatally wounded a customer, 42-year-old Myrna Lee Opsahl. The getaway car was found three hours later, abandoned six blocks from the bank; embarrassed police acknowledged placing the vehicle under surveillance a week earlier, based on reports of "suspicious" persons renting a local garage, but the vehicle had somehow disappeared on April 21. Patricia Hearst later identified three members of the holdup team as SLA members Emily Harris, Kathleen Soliah, and James Kilgore.

FBI agents caught a break in the case on September 18, 1975, when a tipster directed them to the SLA's latest hideout in San Francisco's Mission District. William and Emily Harris were surrounded on a street corner and taken into custody without resistance. Moments later G-men raided a nearby apartment where they captured Patty Hearst, Steven Soliah (Kathleen's brother), and 32-year-old Wendy Yoshimura (sought since 1972 for conspiracy to bomb a Naval ROTC building on the University of California campus in Berkeley). Bond was set at $500,000 for each fugitive on September 18, but a federal judge reversed that decision a day later, ordering Patty Hearst held without bail.

Defense arguments focused on Hearst's state of mind, contending that she had been threatened, raped, drugged, and confined to a filthy closet for weeks before the Hibernia holdup. As a result, her mind became "confused and distorted," with fears of impending madness. A defense affidavit maintained: "Her recollections of everything that transpired from shortly after the bank incident up to the time that she was arrested has been as though she lived in a fog in which she was confused, still unable to distinguish between actuality and fantasy, and in a perpetual state of terror." A semblance of sanity had returned, lawyers said, around the time Patty came back to San Francisco with G-men on her trail. Furthermore, the legal team declared, "She is completely convinced of the love and affection of her family and that she will find safety and comfort in its midst."

Perhaps, but a Los Angeles County grand jury remained unconvinced, charging Hearst and the Harrises on October 6 with 11 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and assault related to the May 1974 thrift shop incident. Kathleen and Steven Soliah, meanwhile, were indicted for bank robbery resulting in death, related to the April 1975 Carmichael raid. Federal Judge Oliver Carter found Patricia Hearst mentally competent for trial and ordered the proceedings to begin on January 26, 1976.

Lead defense attorney F. Lee Bailey attacked Hearst's SLA kidnappers as "crazy people" in his opening statement to the jury, contending that the Hibernia holdup had been deliberately staged by DeFreeze and company to complete the brainwashing of "a particularly vulnerable, frightened 19-year-old girl." Furthermore, Bailey asserted, the carbine carried by Hearst in the bank job "was not operable." Testifying on February 9, Hearst told a story of mental and sexual abuse by her captors, recanted professions of love for William Wolfe, and claimed she had fired on the L.A. thrift shop in May 1974 because she was "indoctrinated" to defend SLA members. On cross-examination by the prosecutor, Hearst used her Fifth Amendment privilege 19 times to avoid questions about various other bank holdups.

Patty Hearst was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, but she served only two years before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. (President Bill Clinton officially pardoned Hearst in January 2001.) Los Angeles jurors convicted William and Emily Harris of armed robbery, kidnapping, and auto theft on August 9, 1976; they were indicted for kidnapping Patty Hearst in October 1976 and pled guilty to that charge in 1978, winning parole in the spring of 1983. Russ Little and Joseph Remiro were convicted of Marcus Foster's murder in June 1977 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kathleen Soliah fled to St. Paul, Minnesota, where (as "Sarah Jane Olson") she married and bore three children. Arrested on June 16, 1999, after her case was profiled on America's Most Wanted, she was returned to California and currently awaits trial. (Soliah's trial was originally scheduled to begin on September 24, 2001, but it was indefinitely postponed by order of a federal appeals court following the prosecution's belated release—in July 2001—of some 23,000 government documents to the defense.) SLA member James Kilgore remains at large, indicted for possession of an unregistered explosive device.


Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Newton, Michael. "Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)." Encyclopedia of Robberies, Heists, and Capers. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=ERHC0224&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 3, 2016).

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